Sulzberger Sees the Future, And It’s Not Black-and-White

Five years from now, The New York Times is going to be an object published on newsprint—loaded onto trucks in College Point, hauled to distribution depots and stuffed into blue plastic bags. It will smudge your hands.

On Feb. 14, New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. is scheduled to address his paper’s staff and tell them that, more or less. In an unguarded moment the previous week, in the thin air of Davos, Mr. Sulzberger let someone from Ha’aretz ask him the old future-of-print question—with a five-year time frame, yet—then was quoted saying that the answer was “I really don’t know,” followed by “I don’t care.”

According to an advance excerpt of his upcoming remarks, Mr. Sulzberger will be praising the Times Company’s “powerful and trusted print brands,” noting that “print continues to command high levels of reader engagement,” and predicting that the format will survive “for a long time.”

It’s Valentine’s Day. Kindergarteners will presumably still be putting blunt scissors to red construction paper to make hearts. Down at a certain level, the medium still counts.

More directly to the point, in Madison, Me., a paper mill that is 40 percent owned by the New York Times Company will be rolling out supercalendered stock to make the glossy pages—and the glossy ad pages—of Mr. Sulzberger’s ever-expanding list of T lifestyle magazines. In Quebec, another paper mill, 49 percent owned by the Times Company, will be making the newsprint that will be cut into newspapers that will be wrapped around the T magazines and delivered to readers.

“[W]e still make most of our money from print advertising and circulation revenue,” Mr. Sulzberger plans to say.

Under Mr. Sulzberger, there has always been a New York Times of Tomorrow on its way. A press release goes out, hailing the birth of a new multi-digi-media cross-platform branded initiative, and between the lines it turns out to be the obituary of the last one. (Was it the Discovery Times that did in New York Times Television, or the other way around?) It’s been a series of fanfares for kazoo.

Yet while his fellow Davos ruminators were softly chewing the cud of the future, Mr. Sulzberger blurted out something new: “I don’t care.”

It was a gaffe, but also an epiphany. The New York Times is the newspaper of today. As it happens, today is when people read the newspaper.

The publisher’s great-grandfather, Adolph Ochs, was not a futurist. When Ochs bought the failing Times in 1896, he made it into a 20th-century newspaper by simply rearranging existing conventions: He would sell broadsheet quality at a tabloid price. That strategy, it turned out, allowed The Times to survive the collapse of New York’s competitive broadsheet market—without anyone ever planning for the end of the broadsheet world.

And even as the American newspaper industry is preparing for the day the Internet kills it off, The Times has made itself into the dominant newspaper on the Web. It has gotten there by trial and error—and the trials and the errors are both ongoing—but the basic premise has held: It is the paper, only without paper.

Particularly, it’s the paper you would get if you didn’t have to wait for a new paper to be printed. Decades ago, some readers wouldn’t subscribe to newspapers because they preferred buying the fresher, final edition off the newsstand. Now the final—the newest final—comes up each time you click “reload.”

But The Times still looks and handles like The Times. There are headlines in Times diction, to tell you what the stories are, or at least what kind of stories they are (“Weeks after a death, twists in some 9/11 details”; “Grammy sweep by Dixie Chicks is seen as a vindication”). There are sections, compressed to little patches of screen, that you can put off till later or train yourself to look past. There are photos and captions. There is even, through the Most E-Mailed list, a rough equivalent of the stack of last week’s copies that you’re planning to leaf through before you finally take them down the hall to the recycling.

The concept has staying power. A copy of the Times Web site archived from 1996 looks not unlike the page of today, except for the line asking readers to “Please open your window to the width of this line of text.”

It’s easy, except it’s not. The Washington Post is a soup of cryptic links, bobbing in and out of view. Dailies in cities like Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco are still hidden behind “portals” (please resize your newspaper to fit this window).

It’s not that is immune to fads or bad ideas. There are tepid blogs and cornball videos and if-you-insist podcasts strewn around the site. They will likely go away, piece by piece, as the real experts in those media—following The Times’ example—claim their own share of the Web audience. In the meantime, you can ignore them, and read the paper.

Sulzberger Sees the Future,  And It’s Not Black-and-White